March 21, 2008

The top and bottom of it

Speaking of the recently discovered incident at the State Department, where someone illicitly accessed Barack Obama's passport file, Secretary of State Dr Condoleeza Rice has apologized, and in addition has stated that she will "stay on top of it and get to the bottom of it."

Now, I am well aware of the tradition of eschewing prescriptivism here at Language Log, where I am privileged to be a Senior Visiting Fellow. But would it be too judgmental of me to point out that Dr Rice cannot get to the bottom of it if she stays on top of it?

I do not seek to question or restrict her powers; this is a matter of antonymy rather than autonomy. Indeed, one might say it is a matter of geometry. There is a fundamental logical problem about staying on the top and getting to the bottom: the bottom is exactly where the top isn't, largely because the middle separates the two.

Take the familiar salutation "Bottoms up!" among drinking companions, for example. When the bottom is up, the top is down. That is just the way it is; that is what bottoms are. And the down position of the top when the bottom is in its up position is precisely what permits the progress of the beer out of the top and down the gullet. "Tops up!" would not have the same effect: the drinkers would just sit there hoisting their glasses and putting them down again. No drinking would be done.

I hope my metaphor is clear. And I hope Dr Rice grasps my point. You may call my insistence on traditional semantics here old-fashioned if you wish, but personally, I have to say that one would hate to think that one was being governed by people who did not know which way was up.

Posted by Melvyn Quince at March 21, 2008 04:35 PM